I live in Europe, and at this time of year, when I see flags of red, white and blue flying, it is more likely an indication of France’s celebration of independence than the U.S. And as a wine lover, I really can’t complain. As much as I love my American homeland, I never tire of the endless opportunities afforded to me, living in central Europe, and I must admit I really do love visiting France.
Within 90 minutes, I can be in the verdant Alsatian vineyards that produce aromatic Gewurztraminer and Riesling. And over spring break, I was equally impressed that within hours, our family was boarding our own personal canal boat in Burgundy where we moseyed along the Canal du Nivernais much like when lush Burgundy wines slowly made their way up this very same canal to be sold in Paris.
I first read about the many canals through France several years ago in a book titled A Year Off. David Elliott Cohen’s family had sold all their belongings to travel the world, and for at least a month of that time, they chose to live on a French canal boat lazily floating along the gentle waters there during the day to then tie up the boat each night and venture into villages for locally produced sausages, cheeses, breads and produce, absorbing every bit of the local color and culture. It sounded idyllic, and I could easily picture their jaunty bicycle rides into town, foraging for the wine and supplies for that night’s meal.
So when I learned that my own family plus most of my best friend’s family could enjoy that same sort of experience, we jumped at the chance to rent a boat that easily housed eight. We too could spend our own few lazy days in the Burgundy region near Chablis, moving between Migennes and Auxerre.
A pastoral beginning
It was in our starting city of Migennes that we had our first real meal of the excursion. The car ride to Migennes, the grocery shopping to ensure our kitchens were well-stocked, the lesson in how to operate the boat and manage it at the many locks we were to encounter, and just loading bikes, clothes, the dog and kids onto the boat ended up taking far longer than we expected. We didn’t depart the dock until right before the lock operator was about to close for the day. And once through our first lock, we soon saw the restaurant the lock operator had recommended, so we stopped for dinner and discovered that this lesser-traveled part of Burgundy had many new wines to share.
It was in this cozy little bistro that we got our first sip of Pinot Noir from a little village, Irancy. It was nearby and we would be there in a day or so, so how could we resist this funny named wine on the menu? Our curiosity was rewarded, and we became even more determined to explore Irancy further in our canal voyage.
Locks, locks everywhere
The downside of a canal trip is that as soon as one settles in, enjoying the lull of birdsong, the smell of fresh flowers in passing gardens, and the sun’s warm rays on your face, you hear someone say, “Lock up ahead!” Most everyone on the boat gets up to go to their assigned ropes and help tie up the boat for the raising and lowering of canal water that is necessary to move boats along. Sometimes, we would encounter wonderful treats such as a lock operator who sold a friend’s locally produced wine or a park that was too inviting not to stop. Other times, we would meet up with a bit of misadventure, such as when our loyal dog jumped into the water just as the lock was about to close. A few shouts later to direct her to swim to shore and she was soon wagging her wet, stinky tail again next to her master and waiting to get back on the boat with him.
We had high expectations when we got near Irancy because of that wine on the first night, so we moored in Vincelottes, meandering through its own fest and flea market that day, and planning on riding our bikes the few kilometers to Irancy the next morning. My husband and I had thought we were so smart in buying inexpensive folding bikes prior to the trip only to find out that five-gear bikes really rode as if they had but one gear, making a 45-minute uphill ride into Irancy feel quite endless. Thankfully, even in a bit of a drizzle, the ride still seemed scenic, and we were rewarded, tasting an interesting assortment of red, white and rosé wines and clearly with unique flavors to this part of Burgundy. Accustomed to boaters like ourselves, the winemakers quickly offered to drive our newly purchased cases of wine to our temporary boat “homes,” so we were lucky that our bike ride back was downhill and we could still get there quickly enough to meet them in time for the delivery.
Because our canal trip occurred in the cooler days of spring, we yearned for a little more heat than one might in the summer, so it seemed like the perfect conclusion to our vacation on our last night to dock in a more remote area where we had noticed an established fire ring, perfect for a campfire. One son had foolishly tried to startle the dog on our boat earlier in the day and was quite eager to dry his wet clothes there, from falling into the mucky canal water himself. We were just as happy to grill delicious French sausages and eat my friend’s potato gratin known as Jansson’s Temptation, as we sipped seemingly perfect Chablis and listened to our sons’ varying guitar music.
Overall, our canal trip showed a picturesque part of France that felt far less touristy than a trip to Paris or Provence. The boats, at their fastest, traveled slowly enough our boys could ride bikes on the path alongside it and beat us to the next lock, but that seemed just fine in these circumstances. From the heady Pinot Noir that we drank with our Marguez sausage-laden couscous to the games of Risk and charades, it all felt like a wholesome retreat from electronics and our normally hectic lives to times gone by and an appreciation for all that is good in life and perhaps…all that was and is so very French.
– Ivy F. Kupec
– Alfie, from the movie Alfie (2004)
It’s that time of year when school lets out, minds turn to summer break, and many make that trek across the “pond” to experience a little European history and culture. Sure, the summers are more moderately heated on The Continent, the ambience is perfect for creating lifelong memories, and one can literally retrace the steps of ancestors past. Sometimes, though, a trip to Europe just isn’t in the plan. Does that mean we still can’t have it all? Of course not! We just need to bring a little bit of Europe to Hinsdale.
Hinsdale’s Inspired Wine Club June selections are prepared to do just that! Feel the brisk whoosh of alpine air as you quaff a favorite Austrian white and imagine yourself along the Languedoc’s Canal du Midi with a rich cut of grilled beef and an equally hearty red. This month’s wines are ready to transport you even if your own vacation is on a smaller scale and in closer proximity to home.
2010 Hermann Moser Gruner Veltliner Karmeliterberg Kremstal
A 300-year-old estate produces an impressive example of Austria’s signature white wine. From 19 hectares of vineyards in the storybook village of Rohrendorf, grapes were harvested October 20th to achieve impressive flavor, creating a crisp, balanced medium-bodied wine with layers of orchard fruit flavors that are accented with wonderful mineral notes. The nose offers hints of smoke, pepper and herbaceousness often associated with Grunter Veltliner. The pale yellow wine comes with great acidity and a long finish and is versatile enough to serve refreshingly as an aperitif or as an adornment to grilled seafood, summer salads or even spicy Asian fare.
2009 Chateau de Flaugergues Languedoc ADP “Les Comtes”
A sip of this deep red wine will not only transport you geographically but also through time, back to the 18th century on the lavish country estate of Count Henri de Colbert located near Languedoc’s capital, Montepelier, in the south of France. “Les Comtes” Rouge was first released in 2007 as a tribute wine. A blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre, the nose clearly brings forth red berry and spicy scents that are both intense and complex. On the palate, it is as rich and opulent as its aristocratic origin. There is no mistaking the gorgeous balance of ripe red fruits with a tinge of spiciness that add to its depth. Again, this is a lovely wine for sipping, but is equally ideal for serving with grilled meats or alongside a cheese platter of medium cheeses such as some of the lighter goat or sheep cheeses or even a medium to sharp cheddar.
It’s not because I’m a wine and beer merchant or that I happen to have an exceptional fondness for this delicious malt beverage. It’s because Wisconsin was sort of built on beer. The Germans, Polish and many other Eastern European immigrants found its environment hospitable and home-like and quickly went to town building some of the most well-known, if not best tasting, beers. Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, and Blatz – they built a foundation for American beer making.
But today’s Wisconsin and its beer-brewing brethren have come quite a distance even if some of its best results never leave the state. That is why it only took a Chicago Tribune article on New Glarus, its brewery and famous beer crawl through at least 12 town bars to get my good friend and president of the Pure Wine Company, Troy Clements and I to pack up a car and head out on a road trip of beer tasting in south-central Wisconsin.
Microbrews seem to love their quirky names, and New Glarus is no exception. Road Slush, Two Women, Moon Man, Fat Squirrel, Cabin Fever, Totally Naked and Hop Hardy are just a few of the beers we encountered in this town seemingly built around beer. Our quest began on a Friday, arriving in time for lunch at the Glarner Stube, which is known for its Swiss fare, including hash brown-like rostis (pronounced Roast-ies) with Swiss cheese. For those who are unfamiliar with New Glarus, it has Swiss roots, so the Stube was a great way to kick off our trip, sampling some of the brewery’s best right at lunch and deciding that Road Slush, Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel were among my favorites…so far. Our “hard hat” tour in the brewery was still to come.
Deb and Dan Carey started New Glarus Brewing Company in 1993, when Deb raised the money for the start-up venture as a gift to her husband and making her the first woman to own and operate a brewery in the United States. Dan, whose education and training have all involved beer making and who did a brewing apprenticeship in Germany, wanted to make those styles of beer in the United States. Interestingly, he ended up buying a good deal of his equipment in Deutschland when he encountered a brewery being torn down. Talk about a great deal—he was able to buy it all at essentially the cost of scrap metal. This is what is still in his Riverside brewery. Today, with a second brewery to help produce his many microbrews, Dan and his great works of beer art have been recognized again and again with honors and accolades that just keep mounting – the most recent being the award of Best Craft Beer of 2011, which was bestowed on his New Glarus Black Top.
So following our lunch in the Stube, we went to the brewery for the three-hour tour, which costs $20/person. This Hard Hat tour provides an exhaustive look at both the Carey’s Riverside Brewery and Hilltop Brewery, and a lengthy time tasting a lot of beer. At the tour’s end, we finished up in a tasting room filled with beer and cheese and meat plates.
For folks whose fortitude isn’t as strong as Troy’s and mine, an hour in the New Glarus tasting room might be enough. But that would hardly tell the story of New Glarus. And we were committed to learning as much as we could about New Glarus and its beers. So after a brief respite at our hotel, we renewed our own private quest. From Puempels Olde Tavern to Ott Haus Pub & Grill to Tofflers Bar & Grill, we continued working our way through much of quiet New Glarus until finally we settled at Deininger’s for dinners of lamb shanks and steak. Of course, a night like this wouldn’t be complete without a nightcap, which we swaggered our way through at Sportsman’s Bar & Grill. Now, this may sound like an exhausting commitment to our lines of work, but rest assured, we unfortunately left many pubs untouched in this sleepy little beer mecca. We would mourn that we never made it to Flannery’s Wilhelm Tell Club, Culvers, or Kleeman’s Bar & Grill.
The quest continues
The unfortunate aspect of beginning a weekend in such splendor is that it can be difficult to maintain that level of excitement. However, as two professional wine and beer merchants, we took our pilgrimage seriously and continued on approximately 30 miles away to a town where beer consumption is brought to an even higher level. No, I’m not talking about Milwaukee. We went to Madison, home of the Badgers.
And rather than play foosball and swill beer with some frat boys or drink draft Old Milwaukee in a ratskeller, we settled in at a Hilton downtown and found ourselves on a pub crawl that would include microbreweries, British pubs and soul-satisfying cheeseburgers. Without question, Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. was my favorite among the several bars we “studied” on our Saturday escapades, returning there at least twice. But, of course, the Ale Asylum and Capitol Brewery were also quite good. Great Dane, however, offered great food and pre-cask beers, making it well worth its inclusion in this brew-seeking road trip. In fact, mid-day Sunday, we were back at the Great Dane and then onto GRAZE from Local Pastures for an eclectic and funky lunch before heading home to resume our lives as under-indulging wine merchants.
I wish I could say that I brought back some of the great beers I sampled on our wildly Wisconsin road trip to sell here in Hinsdale, but alas, none of our favorites ever cross state lines. However, if you come by the shop, I will gladly regale you with a few more stories of Troy’s and my misadventures in Wisconsin and offer free consultation so you can embark on your own personal beer pilgrimage…it’s definitely worth the drive.
– Sean Chaudhry